Designer pitches are not the solution

IT is a pleasure to watch the Indian cricket team playing a Test match at home. And the pleasure is derived from the fact that you don’t have to watch it at all for the most part. For, you know the result five days ahead, especially when the Indian captain wins the toss.

Nothing in the established sporting world is designed quite as efficiently to suit the home players as the pitches in India. Spinners with average abilities suddenly begin to look like demons from outer space; batsmen who have been scratching for runs for a season or two, overnight turn into manic destroyers; the sports media, after relentlessly targeting a team that lost eight Test matches in a row overseas, once again find themselves dusting up from memory all the purple prose that we are bombarded with whenever the Indian team wins.

There is not a single side in international cricket that can hope to come anywhere near India when it comes to taking advantage of conditions at home. Many might see this as a great virtue; some might see it as pointless in a larger context where performing away from home matters more than picking the low hanging fruits gleefully in Ahmedabad or Mumbai.

Of course, home advantage is nothing new. But in no other sport, in no other country, is the home advantage as overwhelming as it is in Indian cricket.

Nature of pitches

Home advantage has several components — the weather, crowds vociferously cheering their heroes, and then the playing surface. But when a cricket team visits India, the first two can be easily discounted these days. For, the home advantage for the Indian cricket team is derived primarily from the nature of the pitches in this country.

Unfortunately, success on “designer” pitches offers the Indian team such a false sense of security and breeds complacency and can lead it down a slippery slope. It means the team is ill-prepared for the vastly different challenges it may face abroad.

You can argue that it would be boring if Test cricket were to be played on the same kind of pitches all over the world. This is very true, and the point that I am trying to make here is not one that advocates uniformity of playing surfaces. Every country has its own special flavour and a true cricket fan should love to savour it.

Yet, it is one thing to celebrate difference; quite another to turn desperation into a timely gift and prepare conspicuously bad pitches for Test cricket so that the home team might profit from it.

“You call that a Test wicket? You must be kidding,’’ said an angry Viv Richards after his team went down to the ‘guile’ of Narendra Hirwani at Chepauk in Madras in 1988. Hirwani picked up 16 wickets in that match and while at it, he might have looked like the greatest spin bowler this country has ever produced.

Richards was not the only captain to find himself in quicksand. There have been plenty of others; and from the looks of it, there will be a lot more to come.

After Dale Steyn, arguably the greatest active fast bowler playing international cricket, cleaned up India for 76 in the second Test at Ahmedabad to set up a superb victory for South Africa in 2008, the groundsman at Kanpur handed out a perfect pitch for the home team.

India had levelled the series. Such dubious victories do little to promote the cause of international cricket. It might make the home team, the advertisers on television networks and lay fans very happy, but essentially it proves nothing.

Whether you like to hear this or not, whether you believe it or not, the pitches at Lord’s or Melbourne or Johannesburg are seldom tampered with significantly to suit the home team. They are what they are because of the soil conditions and the climate.

Adding lustre

Variety is the spice of life and differences certainly add lustre to sport. But it is one thing to be proud of what is naturally different in our sporting environment and quite another to stretch the difference to unnatural limits so that visitors would find it impossible to adapt to the conditions.

Then again, Alastair Cook’s men may not have lasted beyond the third afternoon if they had been playing against Chandrasekhar, Bedi, Prasanna and Venkatraghavan on this Ahmedabad surface.

Ohja and Ashwin may be talented but they have a long, long way to go and it is not going to help their cause if curators turn them into giant terminators at home because they will have nobody to look up to when they play abroad. And fans in India, their expectations swollen from watching the pair at home, will begin to think that they might be world-beaters irrespective of the conditions.

Given its financial muscle, enviable infrastructure and the popularity that the game enjoys in this country, Indian cricket has the capacity to become what Brazil is to football. But this cannot be achieved if we continue to look for the easy way out, which is via dust bowls.

After shouting from the roof-tops at the start of every season about the need for sporting tracks, we always seem to end up with half-cooked pitches on which dwarfs suddenly metamorphose into Gullivers. Will India ever learn?

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